Posts Tagged ‘blogging’

On fellow-bloggers…

December 14, 2021

I found myself thinking about fellow-bloggers. Lots of you out there, some of whom I follow. And apart from one friend who occasionally posts usually on workers co-operatives and related matters, those I follow are because I like what you write about; I don’t know you personally, though images of you emerge from the ways you write and the things you write about, and over the decade or so I’ve been blogging I’ve come to feel part of a community of kindred spirits, as it were.

So, there’s a blogger in Italy who teaches English and writes about her classroom experiences, taking me back to my past as an English teacher and bringing back memories of the joys (and frustrations) of those days. It’s not only in England that education policy seems bonkers. And there’s a classics teacher and avid reader in the US whom I like to read because she takes me back to my schooldays and my love of Latin literature, reminding me that I can actually, 50+ years later, still understand a lot of it. Not many know that I almost ended up studying Classics instead of English at university: where would I, and my life, have ended up if I’d followed that road in the wood, instead of the one I actually chose? And she does some lovely translations of Latin verse.

One who has disappeared from the web lived only a dozen or so miles away, it eventually transpired, and we shared an interest in Wilfred Owen’s life story and love of his poetry. And then there’s someone who I think lives in Australia, who’s a wood-turner and who writes occasional, reflective pieces on spiritual matters which often coincide with what I’ve been thinking about and where I’m currently at in my own journey.

I follow a number of others who write about literature and science fiction; our tastes overlap at times, I sometimes like and sometimes comment. Many of them are much more structured and assiduous in their approach than I am…

And these strangers enrich my life and my thinking, and make me realise that despite all the dreadful things we regularly hear about the internet and social media, it is also a wonderful thing in the way it creates connections. I always enjoy it when people interact with what I’ve written.

It’s also become clear over the last couple of years that I’ve become something of a go-to site for students who are reading First World War literature and especially poetry; they make up a large proportion of my total visits, but sadly never comment on (or like!) what I’ve written. One day I’ll get around to adding my commentaries on a few more poems.

I write because I enjoy it, and because I have the freedom to say what I like; I write about everything I read, and so far I’ve never had to delete a comment or response. I hope to have many more years doing this. One day, I’ll perhaps even choose a slightly more interesting and attractive theme for these posts…

Reading differently

September 11, 2021

Just a few brief thoughts here as I realised the other day just how much the act of writing this blog for the last decade or so has changed the ways I read. Not in any dramatic fashion, because as a lifelong student of literature, once the bug had bitten me in my teens, through three different degrees at universities and a lifetime’s career, I feel that I have always sought to go below the surface. But for a long time, in the middle part of my life, I ‘just’ read books… one sometimes leading to another.

Now there is a greater deliberateness to my approach. Yes, I’ll allow myself to be sidetracked by a sudden discovery, but there’s more of a sense of planning to what I read and when, as I’m increasingly conscious of limited time. I’ve set some time aside this November for reading the new Olga Tokarczuk novel The Books of Jacob, which is finally scheduled to appear in English translation – and I’ve resisted buying the French version which is already out there because I like the work of her English translator Jennifer Croft – and there’s a part of me that remembers, every now and then, that I need to live long enough to read the final part of Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust trilogy…

So I read a little more carefully now, with a slip of paper and a pencil to jot down ideas and thoughts, links and comparisons and anything else that occurs to me as I read. And I rejoice in the modern technology which means that if my phone is with me, I can look up words and references instantly, without leaving the sofa, and I do look things up rather more than in the past.

I’m thinking more about what I’m reading, with the discipline of this blog in the back of my mind: my promise to myself was that every book I read would get a post, and I don’t think I’ve broken this rule. And, if I’m honest, I’m getting more out of the reading that I’m doing, which can’t be bad.

How I write

April 6, 2021

It took me quite a while to see myself as a writer of sorts. I spent years teaching students to write. And I managed to forget that I’d written countless essays as a student, then a dissertation and finally a thesis. Then, since I retired, I have written some study guides. And there are a thousand plus posts in this blog…

Once I started the blog, I decided I would write about every book I read, and I think I have managed to do this; if I skim a book rather than read it, then I don’t usually write a post about it. But the decision has sharpened up the way I read, now, which I’m quite pleased about: I’m more attentive, because I know I will be writing about the book, and I tend to think about other books that it reminds me of (quite often I get an idea for what to read next, which disrupts my original reading schedule).

I take a small (A6) piece of paper which I use as a bookmark, and I keep a pencil close by; every now and then I will jot down either a salient idea, or a new reflection, or an opinion. It’s a fairly scrappy process but I haven’t found a better way of doing it; some books will amass quite a few of these small slips as I read and reflect.

When I finish a book, I always note down the date I finished it, in pencil inside the back cover. This way I can keep track of how many times I’ve read a particular book, and it’s interesting to know when I last read it, if I come back to it. I’ve been doing this since I went off to university nearly half a century ago. I also log the book in my ledger, which is a record of all the books I read each year, so I can keep tabs on my habit; here I get my stats for the end-of-year blog posts on what I’ve read in a particular year.

I take my little note sheets and sit down at the laptop and write. The sentences do manage to come out with reasonable fluency. Posts have seemed to work out at somewhere in the 5-600 word region, although some books get longer pieces; I don’t set myself a limit deliberately. Often I’ll wait a day before I come back to proof-read and polish a piece, correcting all my errors and tidying up expression: I wasn’t an English teacher for 30 years for nothing… That delay often allows ideas to finish maturing in my mind and I frequently do end up finding a better way of saying something second-time around.

I tend to avoid telling the story: if my piece is interesting enough to a reader, I hope they’ll want to hunt down the book and read it themselves, so no spoilers intended, really. I’ll pick out what I think is important or interesting, and obviously I’ll always give my opinion. I’ll make links and connections or comparisons with other books or writers that occur to me. Finally I hunt down a thumbnail of the book’s cover if I can find one; I like to have one of the edition I possess if that’s possible, but given the age of some of the books in my library, that’s often not possible. A few tags to help the search engines, and I’m good to go.

Social media = social division?

November 21, 2020

I’ve been on facebook for a decade or so; I use it to keep in touch with distant friends, former colleagues and former students, and to share this blog with some of you… I find it increasingly frustrating to use, and the algorithms that seem to only allow me to see posts from a small proportion of friends are incomprehensible. I’d love an alternative. I have a Twitter account that I don’t use, and an Instagram account that I use occasionally, usually when on holiday. It also drives me nuts when it fills up with adverts and suggestions of whom I might follow… I keep all these accounts as locked down as possible, to block advertising and tracking.

So, I find social media useful. I am also increasingly horrified by its power and its insidious effect on us all, because it’s a commercial product which has the primary purpose of making vast amounts of money for apparently unscrupulous people.

I have the impression that for many – younger – people it’s their gateway to, or source of, news and “commentary” on the news. So everything is smitten into tiny gobbets that will fit on a phone screen, lacking depth, detail and subtlety when it’s not actually incorrect, or deliberately false. This is not good in a society that would like to be thought of as democratic. And then there is the deliberate use of social media to propagandise, to influence and shape opinion, often by very unscrupulous, hidden and anonymous forces: algorithms hunt out the vulnerable and susceptible and set to work. Social media is divisive.

Social media has the power to be very divisive, and to polarise us, into fiercely opposed groups. Again, it’s the brevity and lack of subtlety when it’s so easy to make a throwaway, dismissive, simplistic or aggressive comment on an article or a post, and anonymously too. It can be the equivalent of a brick through a window, something which many people would not do, but a quick snarky comment on social media… no real harm in that, surely?

Social media also seems to separate us from others, in the sense that it isolates us in our own particular bubble of like-minded readers and thinkers, and gives us an inflated sense of our own importance. We are friends with people like us, and tend to make similar comments and have similar reactions to events; opposing viewpoints do not often impinge on our own little echo-chamber.

When I was teaching – former students may recall this – I took great delight in allowing wide-ranging discussion of a wealth of subjects, and often used to play devil’s advocate in order to widen the discussion and introduce different viewpoints. Social media cannot do things like that.

Where is the real danger in all of this? It’s the creation of divisions where there were none before, or the amplification and simplification of divisions and conflicting viewpoints, the fostering of anger rather than discussion, dialogue, argument – all of which are healthy! And look for the motives. I started by pointing at the money, and the moguls of social media are phenomenally rich, far richer than any one individual has the need or the right to be. But look also at the power dynamic: keep people divided into their own particular little interest groups and they won’t see what they have in common, which may well be that the system conspires to keep them separate so that they won’t challenge the existing order and rebel against it, thereby threatening those in power and their money. The Romans knew how to do this two millennia ago “divide et impera” – divide and rule – and it still works today…

What can be done? Clearly so many of us enjoy social media, and would be loth to give it up. We need a different model, perhaps, a non-commercial one. I’d pay a modest monthly sum for a neutral, non-profit oriented facebook or instagram equivalent, one which didn’t allow manipulation or advertising and didn’t try to replace our news media. Or maybe someone out there has a better idea?

On blogging

May 22, 2018

I’ve been blogging seriously for over five years now, so I step back to take stock of what I’ve been up to and what I’ve actually achieved. Nearly seven hundred posts, enough words written for several novels. Posts about individual books, novels, plays and poems. Posts on more general topics, to do with aspects of literature and teaching. Posts about my travels, about the Great War, and lots more besides.

I’ve enjoyed writing them, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered. And now I’ve got myself into a sort of routine, where I find I’m thinking more critically about a book as I read it, and often jotting down short notes about what I’ll write about. Sometimes an idea for a more general piece will pop into my mind as I read, or when I’m awake in the night, and I’ll start jotting down my thoughts; eventually it will be time to write it up, if there’s enough to say. So there’s a kind of mental discipline here, I feel: I read more carefully and critically, and make myself try and give coherent shape and form to my ideas. There is also the thought of all that complex electrical activity in my brain not going entirely to waste…

I write each piece using my notes, revise it carefully, and look for a picture of the book’s cover to illustrate it, if the post is about a particular book.

I have getting on for 300 followers, either via facebook or direct subscribers. Not that many, I think, but then I realise my subject-matter and my approach is a fairly serious one. I get upwards of a couple of thousand visitors a year; not that many really. Some posts get lots of readers, some only a couple, some none at all, I fear. I’m astonished at the ones visitors flock to – Theodore Kroger’s The Forgotten Village seems to head the list at the moment, closely followed by Derek Guiton’s A Man That Looks on Glass. The first is an obscure memoir set in revolutionary Russia, the second is part of a dialogue about the future direction of the Religious Society of Friends. Amazing what search engines will do…

I haven’t had that many comments on what I’ve written, and sometimes this saddens me; I wonder if it’s because I come across as too knowledgeable, or my reading and thoughts are too obscure, or the way I express my opinions tends to preclude comment or discussion. I’ve long wanted to engage in dialogue with more of my readers; I’m grateful for the comments that do develop into an exchange, and I like it when people disagree with me, take issue and argue – I think my former students would back me up here… Anyway, to those of you who do comment, whether to agree, disagree, or offer a different perspective on what I’ve said – thank you.

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